Epidemic – Remembering a low-budget ‘zombie’ film

Epidemic – Remembering a low-budget ‘zombie’ film

As well as this month marking 50 years since the moon landing, it also marks the 10th anniversary of what I believe to be the cheapest ‘zombie’ film ever made.  Not ‘Colin’ – a Marc Price film which featured in this Guardian article that month and was released in October 2009. No, that cost a staggering £45 to make.  The one I am talking about is called ‘Epidemic’, made for just a budget of £30.  This was the total cost of the make up (including a bottle of tomato ketchup), props and accessories (including several cheap, plain, white T-shirts). The students involved were all young learners, aged between 12 and 17, on a Bell Educational Trust summer language and activity programme.  I was not maintaining a blog at the time, so here is belated write-up of that experience.

I was a teacher at The Leys school, in Cambridge, that summer. It was my first paid teaching job after completing my CELTA at NILE in March of that year. It was two months after I had made a film and DVD about a youth club reunion in East London, which I wrote about earlier this year. Now ‘Epidemic’ has got the full anniversary treatment.  Going back to the original footage to find outtakes and rehearsals, the executive producer (that’s me) has just put together a 10th anniversary DVD Edition.  This is the new cover with archive photos and a new summary of the contents ‘groaning’ inside.

Epidemic (10th Anniversary Edition) DVD cover

Making ‘Epidemic’ remains my proudest achievement in terms of maximising task-based learning and using ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) in my career to date.  It was my first post-CELTA job and I was buzzing with enthusiasm. It was actually my teaching partner, not Marc Price, but Marc Murphy-Robinson who came up with the idea of ‘film’ as our theme for this 2 week part of a 6-week summer course.  We had been given one of the lowest English language level classes.  All new arrivals undertook a crude placement test and ours were around A2-B1 – a lot of Spaniards and Russian teenagers amongst them. The idea for the story came from a pair of Spanish teenagers who were inspired by the Danny Boyle film, 28 Days Later. Don’t ask me how they knew the details of this 18-certificate zombie flick. They were also inspired by the Darren Aronofsky film, ‘Requiem for a Dream. They explicitly wanted music from that latter film included, too. I had not previously heard of this one, but I felt it was a great choice as it really added a sense of tension to the movie. Once three different movie ideas had been pitched, this was chosen to go into production. The director, a small 15 year-old lad called Ignacio, who insisted it was a ‘horror’ film he was making not a comedy, had to cast it.  Some students volunteered for acting roles, while others were somewhat coerced into being on screen. There was also a costume department, a make-up team, two camera operators and two runners. I have rediscovered some photos of the director’s notes which shows a possible list of props needed and who was playing who. See below.

Epidemic Directors Notes

OK, the quality is what you might expect of a fairly rushed, low-budget film.  It takes a bit too long to get to the first main Zombie sequence showing cricketers turned into the ‘undead’, all because of a single wasp sting. There is some wind noise and you can hear chatting off camera on a couple of occasions, including a passer-by asking if I am a teacher. However, Marc and I got a lot out of the teens. Most of the filming was done in one day, with the editing finished the following day, so that this ambitious film could be shown during the end of their two week course class show and each child getting a copy, which included outtakes.  The show took place on 20 July 2009, exactly one year ago today. The film got a rapturous response at the show, especially when the Cranberries’ song ‘Zombie’* – with its line “Another head hangs lowly. Child is slowly taken” – came up over the credits. My DOS told me that it was brilliant, exactly the kind of thing for a young learner course such as this.  It exceeded all expectations of what could be done in such a short space of time. I am still very proud of it.

I remember reading the Bell handbook afterwards which mentioned the difficulty of trying to make a film from scratch and warned against trying. This was based on teachers who had attempted this before but found it logistically challenging.  There were only around 10 actual lessons with the kids and more than half of these were classroom based and for language learning. Parents had to be sold on sending their loved ones (maybe not-so loved ones) away for the summer – and part of that is that the teens would be improving their English.  It was a fun, collaborative activity programme, complete with day trips and sporting options.  There was also lots of cheap entertainment, rounded off by a disco at the end of every two weeks. I loved the experience and made some great friends from my time at The Leys. I returned the following year and made another film called ‘Bad Romance’, the making of which can be found on my video page.




Anyway, here is the final version.  Two weeks later we made Epidemic II – which I personally didn’t think was as good, but at least a sequel got made and that features on the new DVD along with unearthed rehearsal footage, outtakes and interviews, which were conducted on the way back from Newmarket Horse Racing museum. You can watch the ‘artistic’ black & white version in full below, minus the credits.** I should point out that the original version that appears on the DVD is in colour, where the ketchup can be seen in all its glory!


If you want to hear more about this and other films that I have been involved in making over the last 12 years or so as an English language teacher, please come to The Image Conference in Brussels,***, on 5-6 October.  I will presenting on this topic for the first time.  You can watch my promotional video, which will be shared by Belta in August.



* I am fully aware that the Cranberries song is about the troubles in Northern Ireland, so no need to comment to that effect.  The song just came up when we were discussing with the students possible music for the credits, and it fitted very nicely.

** The video is unlisted on YouTube and the credits have been removed due to copyright of the song ‘Zombie’ and because it shows all the students’ names.

*** I will be bringing some colour copies of the DVD to the Image Conference, which I might give away.


Walk for Parkinson’s 2

On Saturday 11 May, my father and I went on another 5.5 mile sponsored walk at the Blickling Estate, Norfolk, in aid of Parkinson’s UK. We did the same walk last year and I wrote about it a year ago.  My dad, Barry, who is just about to turn 74 years of age, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in December 2011. On this occasion we were joined by my sister-in-law, Kirsty, and my ten year-old niece, Lily. As the charity states:

“Every hour, someone in the UK is told they have Parkinson’s. Because we’re here, no one has to face Parkinson’s alone. We offer friendship, support, expert information and advice. We also fund ground breaking research into Parkinson’s and we’re leading the way to find a cure.”

By Sunday night, we had raised at least £423 in total.  £268 of it was donated online through this page or offline through friends and family.  My sister-in-law and niece raised another £155 or so.

Walk for Parkinson’s happens all over the UK.  We were fortunate once again that the weather was good on the day. It started a little damp, with some rain overnight, but brightened up later and ended in glorious sunshine.  Just as I did last year, I made a video of the walk and put it to the tune, ‘Lovely Day’ by Bill Withers.  This time my niece helped me the choice of shots used. You can watch it below or on YouTube.


Click here for a selection of official photographs from the day.

Click here for an extended version of the above video, which includes some of the official photos from the day.

IATEFL Workshop – Liverpool 2019

Albert Docks Cover

This is a reflection of my session at the IATEFL Conference in Liverpool and the context in which it took place. A recording of it is below with links to my slides below that, though most of them appear in the video. The slides include many of my personal bookmarks which I have collected over the last couple of years.

In the lead up to the conference I published this screencast recording from 5 December 2017, which shows how many shares of my survey request came from my original Facebook post on 1 December.  It took off because of the sheer numbers of people who shared and re-shared it, either on their personal timeline or on a Facebook group. They probably shared it in other ways. It lead to the questionnaire, which had mostly open-ended questions, being completed by 501 different English language teaching professionals from around the world and I presented my findings in an extensive post to coincide with my talk in Brighton in April 2018.

My talk was more of a workshop this time around, with greater audience participation. I covered five questions from my original survey and dealt with the responses, whilst being conscious of time. In fact, I managed to keep my presentation within the 45 allotted minutes despite no session following directly afterwards. I have done similar workshops in London and Malta, as well as three webinars on the topic.  This is the last time I will do this particular talk or workshop in this format, especially the ‘diagnose the 8 conditions’ activity, although I remain open to presenting at events, conferences and engaging in a discussion on this important topic.


My session was scheduled at the same time as the Tribute session, taking place on the same floor of the Jury’s Inn hotel in Liverpool. Not quite the ‘fringe’ but closer than the airplane-like room (or Gate) 23 at the ACC! Numbers suffered as a result, and I had about 35 people attend in person. But it’s quality, not quantity that matters, although I do want my research and my presentations to reach a wider audience. I made a reference to the people ELT and IATEFL had lost this year and played ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ and ‘Handle with Care’ by Andy Burrows and Matt Haig before I started. In addition, I displayed a few key books. I also made a reference to being back in Liverpool for the first time since acute anxiety had prevented me from being able to leave my hotel room – the Ibis, across from Albert Dock – for a whole day during IATEFL 2013 and during which I suffered from generalised anxiety the whole week.  I had been in a secure unit a few weeks beforehand. I was mentally in a lot healthier place this time and felt I got some closure on that experience.


I was delighted that Sarah Mercer could attend my session as she was my inspiration to do my research. I was equally delighted to find out that Liverpool plenary speaker, Hornby scholar and self-described ‘micro celebrity’ Paula Rebolledo Cortes attended, too. I made a reference to her conference opening plenary comment about teachers being ‘used and abused’, collaborative action and teachers’ working conditions, because I wanted to highlight this in my workshop. Unfortunately, I mispronounced her surname, but many do, apparently. She discussed the buzzword that is ’empowerment’ during her plenary, while I addressed the buzzword that is ‘wellbeing’ during mine.


I deliberately quoted Paul Walsh, as he was the person who originally interviewed me for Time to Talk day 2017.  I have a lot of sympathy with the view that fostering responsibility of teachers to look after themselves is fine but what is actually needed is a greater discussion of conditions, pay, contracts and advocacy, which IATEFL, as an organisation, arguably falls short of.  Hopefully that will change.  New president ‘Harry’ KuchahNnam Kuchah, another Hornby Scholar, who I knew at the University of Warwick, defended IATEFL’s position in a series of exchanges on Twitter towards the end of the event with Paul, Neil McMillan and others.  At least he is prepared to engage in conversation – in fact this was just before I bumped into him while I was charging my phone, before he walked on stage to close the conference. It was a week that addressed some important issues, challenged some already held beliefs.  I think IATEFL has always tried to focus on teacher and quality learning, well at least since I have attended it. This conference also had a thematic thread on issues such as diversity and inclusion. Nonetheless, the conversation is still going on (mostly on Twitter) about whether the conference assures equity and representation of all identities.

Anyway, in respect of my talk in April 2018 and workshop this year, as far as I am aware I am the only person to have used the words ‘mental health’ explicitly stated in the title of a talk at IATEFL and I have done this twice now.  I am not sure if I am at the level of ‘micro-celebrity’ yet or ‘TEFL famous’ as a good friend has remarked, and I am not sure that I even want to be, but hopefully I am doing my bit to raise awareness of both mental health and working conditions in ELT.  I am grateful to Helen Chapman for supporting me ahead of this talk and for recording it.

Recording – please go full screen or watch on You Tube:


Click here for the slides


I neglected to include Paul Walsh’s article in my references, but it is included in the comprehensive collection of 60+ hyperlinks at the end of the slides.

With the slides fail at the end of my workshop, I forgot to ask the participants for their permission to be on film. Although shots of the audience are limited, I apologise here if anyone caught on camera would have preferred not to be. I did ask for shots during the Q&As to focus on me, not participants, and that is what was done. In the video editing process, I also superimposed the ‘8 conditions’ slides over the top of footage of the participants quite deliberately.  I cut a lot of the discussion elements of the recording to trim it from 45 to around 36 minutes, which is the same length as the talk in Brighton recording.


Alpha Grove Reunion – 10th Anniversary

Aside from my day job, one of my hobbies is making films.  There is a whole page on this blog dedicated to some of those, whether with students, for the Learning Technologies Special Interest Group or just for pleasure.  It’s just a selection of some of things I’ve created.  One of those films is ‘Alpha Grove Reunion’, based on an event which incredibly took place ten years ago next month.  I recently remade the DVD cover especially for this anniversary, although the content is pretty much the same, and given it to some people who were at the event.  This includes Karen O’Sullivan, whose sister Tina got in contact with me recently via Facebook.  I was at Seven Mills Primary school, on the Isle of Dogs, with Karen, Tina (Miller) and their younger sister, Kerry.

Alpha Grove Reunion - 10th Anniversary Version cover

The story goes like this:

Back in April 2009, inbetween completing my CELTA and working for Bell Educational Trust in Cambridge, I returned to my childhood home on the Isle of Dogs, in London, with my mum, dad and brother, Pete.  The reason for our trip was a reunion of members of a youth club that my mum and dad set up and ran for 5 years in the late 1970s – early 1980s, before we moved to North Norfolk in 1982.  My dad bought this old Methodist church building for £8250 and they called it the Alpha Grove community centre on the run down, working-class Barkatine estate.  The old church building had been totally redeveloped and was undergoing some more building work when we visited. The whole island dramatically changed, of course, in the 1980s with (primer Minister) Margaret Thatcher’s Docklands development programme, which included Canary Wharf, a.k.a. 1 Canada Square.  It is now virtually unrecognisable from the desolate waste ground I grew up and played in as a kid.  I used to break into this area from our back garden, confronted by security guards protecting this empty and desolate space.

The Alpha Grove website

Tony Scott ITV News at Ten 2018-01-15_14-46-48

Tony Scott at the ITV NEWS at TEN studio

I made a fly-on-the-wall documentary film and a DVD of the trip back to London.  The film is interspersed with original, low quality footage found on an old VHS cassette, filmed by Tony Scott, in 1983.  He was a frequent visitor to the Alpha Grove youth club and filming was Tony’s hobby.  In fact, this was the first thing he ever filmed.  He later got hired by ITN news, in 1985, and was a sound recordist for many years.  In 1998 he became one of their main camera 🎥 operators. He has now worked with ITN for 34 years.  There is a day in the life of a cameraman film recorded last June about what he does and all the technology he uses. He is seen talking about his job whilst covering last year’s Grenfell Tower inquest for ITV news.  He can be a bit of name dropper, even more then me!  I couldn’t give you a list of all the famous people he has met in his long time working for ITN, but it has included Prime Ministers, filming The Queen’s Christmas broadcast and international missions like Charles and Camilla’s trip to Nepal and covering three UEFA Champions League finals – including 2012 when Chelsea beat Bayern Munich. He won a Royal Television Society award for his coverage from Beirut.  Not surprisingly he has lots of stories to tell and is currently writing an autobiography, although he admits his English isn’t great and might need a ‘ghostwriter’..

On Sun 14 Jan 2018, Tony unexpectedly popped into our home in North Norfolk. It was the first time either my Dad or myself had seen him for 30-odd years – the last time he came to our house was for a party back in the eighties.  Here is Tony Scott below, posing for a photo with that original DVD, and being reunited with his own Alpha Grove footage, which had been misplaced. Tony, for once, being on the other side of the camera!  To date, Tony has not got back in touch regarding his autobiography.


Dad, Tony and me

The full reunion film (with music intact) can be seen below.  Click on full screen to get the full viewing experience.

Note: The film was uploaded 14 months ago but has only just been seen by Karen, Tina and others more recently.  The film uses copyrighted music, mostly by the Sting / The Police.  UMG owns the rights to The Police’s recorded music and have labelled it as such on the video but has, so far, allowed the music to be included.  I sang ‘Message in A Bottle’ during the Reunion Karaoke but, thankfully, this wasn’t recorded. The Alpha Grove had a jukebox and my father would regularly purchase the latest 7″ singles with the holes cut out. When it was time to replace some, my brother and I used to share the dividends, helping me to build up my vinyl record collection. I still have the two of the three Police 7″ singles used in the main film.

I did a basic screen capture from the the DVD as, for some unknown reason, converting the video to a format for YouTube didn’t work.  Tony’s original footage was put together in this compilation:


Note: This article was originally published on 3 February 2018.

Dealing with Attendance problems of Adult learners

This is a summary of the #ELTchat topic which was discussed on 6 March 2019. It is my 16th summary in total and means that I join moderator @SueAnnan, in earning a ‘gold medal’.  I didn’t take part during the hour long chat and only contributed to the ‘slowburn’, which is the 24 hour period after the main chat when other Twitter users can add their thoughts and comments. A list of all #ELTchat summaries is available here and my own summaries can be found from the tab at the top of this page.


The topic of dealing with attendance problems with adult learners is another pertinent one for me at the moment.  I teach two ESOL classes in the city of Norwich, UK.  The most recent one is an ’employability’ class, with refugees and migrants. As well as general functional English, we will look at specific vocabulary and skills around looking for and obtaining work.  Whilst learners show some initial interest, come to the assessment day and possibly one or two early classes, retention of learners is already looking poor. I do not always know the reasons why learners either do not attend or drop out without any notice. I posed some questions this week about the ‘barriers’ to attending class, as well as obtaining employment, on the worksheet below.  One learner stated that he didn’t come to the previous lesson because “it was raining”.  I asked if he would give ‘bad weather’ as an excuse to his employer and he stated that it was just a reason for not attending my class. Another learner dropped out this week due to poor mobility and no funds being available to bring learners to the class. So the problems and reasons of non-attendance do need to be explored, along with ways to handle this.


Worksheet given out this week in class

Do you have attendance issues with your adult classes? asked @Marisa_C  early on in the chat. She also has “mostly refugee classes at [her] school – paying students usually try not to miss out on their classes but with free classes you know there’s always a problem.”  @jonjoTESOL stated that his school has rolling classes that can be rebooked if missed. He added that “the flexibility has caused attendance issues in my opinion though. It’s not a cheap course either!”   also mentioned this – suggested encouraging students to create social media groups to let each other know attendance problems and to catch up. The “more flexible school policies are, the worse the attendance usually!,” she stated.

A ‘Needs Analysis’ can be vital to provide on relevant topics and focus, suggested   “Sure. It is also often a problem with corporate English online classes paid for by the company,” replied , who stated it was not so much an attendance as participation issue.  Some group sessions have “one or two [who] hover in the background just to tick the attendance box.  @adi_rajan stated that his problem came with corporate courses, which have always had ‘punctuality’, not attendance issues. @JonjoTESOL agreed with this point. In the Middle East countries 6pm doesn’t mean 6pm. However, the lessons he gives are strictly one hour and there isn’t much flexibility to ‘restart’ a lesson – even from a demanding ‘customer’.  felt quite tolerant about punctuality, if there were plausible reasons. Like many chatters, she felt that paying for lessons can definitely be a motivating factor.  As time goes on, however, the excuses and genuine reasons for not attending increase. This includes expensive courses, stated @JonjoTESOL, adding that it is “difficult for schools that try to appeal to the person as both a student and customer. ‘Good customer service’ does not always mean ‘good classroom / teacher standards’, including attitudes to attendance.”

Sometimes life just gets in the way, said @MoreMsJackson. She asked what the chatters do to help their students catch up from missed lessons?

MoreMsJackson Tweet

answered: My first slide of a lesson is the last slide of the previous lesson. Sentence stems  to promote reflection. A returning student pairs up with someone who was present and they fill them in while everyone gets settled. Then I deal with any questions and a review task.”   @adi_rajan stated that “most of [his] courses have a Wiki or Edmodo group and there is usually something there by way of a summary, sometimes learner-generated.  This lead to a brief discussion over the merits of Edmodo compared with Schoology.  @ClareBurke_ELT said that she liked Edmodo, but some students are not so keen. They don’t like signing in every time they move group. The teacher also has the extra task of generating codes for first few weeks when absent students need to get in.  stated that in her school, they phone their students once they have missed three classes. This is in order to tell them what they’ve missed and to find out if they are coming back.  that her old school did this because some students felt that if they missed one or two at the start, it was embarrassing to come back. Again, life gets in the way, so staff could offer other options. If there were handouts  usually makes sure they get them. Other students are also pretty good at posting whiteboard snapshots and homework answers on WhatsApp. However, one missed lesson should not matter too much if there is recycling and review in later lessons.


“How about encouraging students to create social media groups?” wondered @fionaljp. @JonjoTESOL replied that in his context this had “been actively discouraged from doing this from management. It has created both positive and negative social environments which then leak into the class.” He believed that it might be a cultural issue, where there is a different perspective on social media.  @adi_rajan countered this by saying “culture can be leveraged to get people to come regularly and on time for classes. It took me a long time to figure it out but I’ve had similar punctuality issues in South Asia and the trick is to appeal to students’ sense of respect for the teacher.” @PhilipMErasmus “One issue with using social media is that many adults are just overloaded with social media accounts and simply cannot handle another. Good idea in theory, but… ” while “Students could just make mini groups with just their ‘friends’ from the class,” suggested @MoreMsJackson, which is actually what @fionaljp meant, who felt that gaining respect is actually a great way to encourage attendance.

@JonjoTESOL later wondered if anybody in the chat would consider giving extra light homework using WhatsApp or other social media and whether this medium created an alternative, more relaxed kind of interaction. @Marisa_C replied that what works for her situation is to try giving them collaborative homework or some research task for which they need to use the app or chat function. @MoreMsJackson queried what was meant by “extra light homework”. @JonjoTESOL was not entirely sure what he meant, but offered that, perhaps, students can respond to a short news article, maybe ask give them a short particular grammar or vocabulary task that you previously covered. Or you can have a group chat every week similar to .

@fionaljp stated that she would keep a distance from students’ use of social media platforms. @JonjoTESOL asked whether, by ‘distance’ she was involved in the group conversations? @fionaljp replied that she didn’t get involved. She encourages their use, but without her. She believes in professional distance in terms of sharing personal contacts and it has been the policy everywhere she has worked.

@ClareBurke_ELT said that a colleague of hers suggested a ‘5 minute mission’ for teens. Each Student blocks five mins of their day in their phone’s calendar. When they get the reminder, they have to do something in English, such as listen to a song while reading lyrics, watch part of a YouTube video, etc. Students can then go on Edmodo or Padlet and document what they have done, sharing the link or recommending the song. It’s been eye-opening.

Clare 1


Getting back to adult attendance, @JonjoTESOL asked what strategies the chatters have used that might have improved attendance.  The only one he could think of is giving them physical proof of their improvement over the time that they have come. @Sandymillin replied with “the highest quality classes we can manage! CPD for our teachers and clear evidence of quality control. Life will get in the way, but if the classes are good enough students want to come back.”  @Adi_Rajan talked about extrinsic rewards, such as points in Classdojo and taking pictures of activities to tap into students’ #FOMO (fear of missing out).


Adi Rajan

@PhilipMErasmus agreed with this, but felt that at the end of the day there is only so much we can do. It us ultimately their choice, and often a matter of priorities.  @ge_lblog stated that they would agree in respect of quality, adding, “Inspiring teaching, together with attention to the contexts of use that are most relevant to the students communicative needs, [which] increases attendance. But often adults have to balance many priorities and, [therefore] English classes suffer.”

@JonjoTESOL further stated that he was interested to hear how some schools handle the balance between ‘good customer service’ and ‘good teaching practices’ when it comes to paying customers. @fionaljp replied Flipped classroom? Creating a class blog? Buddy system? – clear ways for learners to take responsibility and catch up on missed lessons.” @PhilipMErasmus replied that occassional changes could be made if everyone agreed. However, if a student cannot make it, they could see the teacher ten minutes before the lesson to catch up on what they lost. This would be a no-nonsense, ‘take-responsibility-for-your-own-learning’ policy.

In the ‘Slowburn’ period, I tweeted about my current classes mentioned at the beginning of this summary. I need to complete a course monitoring sheet. Attendance can be poor and learners need chasing. If a satisfactory answer is not given within 2-3 weeks then they have to be removed from the course, despite mitigating circumstances. I try to create a comfortable learning environment where the students feel they want to come and stay. Sometimes, though, other external factors (family, training, dentist appointments) impact on their attendance.  I think motivation is key here. A lot of my refugee learners want to find work or drive in the UK.  They are keen to attend in order to pass the driving theory test or obtain employment. What gets in the way is ‘life’. Having said that, I do my best to motivate them and to accommodate their external commitments, but fostering autonomous learners is also required here.


The following article was shared by Fiona in the chat: How social media is changing learning.

Gold Medal Badge

on Differentiation Strategies

This is a summary for an #ELTchat discussion, which took place on 13 February 2019, on the topic of differentiation strategies.  It was the first chat I had taken part in since the one on 17 October on Digital Tools, for which I also wrote the summary.  It is my 15th 🙂

This topic is particularly important to me as I am having to do this a lot with my current ESOL ‘Driving Theory’ class, which I wrote about in the chat, and an upcoming ‘Employability’ class.  There are many articles already out there about strategies for differentiation, such as this from Teacher Toolkit and this on ESOL differentiation from the British Council.  Furthermore, @fionaljp  mentioned this one from English Teaching Professional during in the chat, while  shared this post on differentiation with mixed ability classes by Barefoot TEFL Teacher in the ‘slowburn’.

Why Differentiated Instruction

“Differentiation is an important issue for many teachers these days. I have a class with spiky profiles. They range in age, ability and level of different skills, so I have to differentiate in all instructions,” stated @SueAnnan@Marisa_C wondered how much of Sue’s design caters to differences.  “90%” thought Sue. “I offer different amounts of work. Shorter reading passages etc … The preparation can be that you divide up the passage with your eyes as you hand it out, and get different groups to jigsaw read bits according to how much they can cope with,” she added.  She summarised the start of the chat as talking about classes of mixed range, ability, age etc and decided that teachers don’t want to be spending free time making stuff to differentiate too much.

@fionaljp offered that “it’s all about inclusion, isn’t it?”  “I hope my classes are inclusive. But you can still have 3 men and a dog in class, who really aren’t the same level, because its too early in the year, and you haven’t recalled your teachers yet.” answered @SueAnnan. “I’m sure they are … just meaning it can become a bit impractical,” replied @fionaljp.

@sartorious23 stated that “Differentiation might occur when teaching single-gendered classes. Lesson plans and delivery need to be adapted accordingly.” @jonjoTESOL queried this thinking. “I teach in [Saudi Arabia] where all my classes are male. Why do you say that differentiation might occur in the same-sexed classroom?” @sartorious23 responded, “My only instance [in Kuwait] is differentiation on delivery and lesson planning – not on the type and amount of activities for stronger and weaker units … For example, I had to alter my material for male and female classes, in order to provide visuals and ideas that would be closer to them … For the male class, I picked visuals that would not insult students coming from conservative families.”

“All the readings suggest differentiation in task design but often very simple things like this or choice can work best,” stated @Marisa_C.  “An extras box is also a good idea. Variety is the key – a set of laminated cards clearly colour-coded with individual or paired activities is a great idea. Their content is up to you.”

@PhilipMErasmus said that “for me differentiation comes down to: we don’t teach classes, we teach individuals.. this is the aim.”  However, “it depends on the range of ability and interest in the class and the size of the group,” responded @SueAnnan, before stating that “small changes can have big effects … Something as simple as introducing choice to a class can work wonders for morale. They think the teacher is really listening to them.”  @Marisa_C agreed, suggesting that “perhaps leave [exercises] on a table and people can choose whichever one they want – next time they might get wiser.” @jonjoTESOL also agreed with this. “I need a list of these ‘small changes’ that a teacher does that have huge implications in the classroom. No more assuming that two hours of lesson prep is an hour of lesson time,” he said.

@koomska was at a talk about this where they suggested lots of versions of same task. One idea was having answers with ‘distractors’ on back of the worksheet.  @SueAnnan replied that her “weaker students would probably go for the distractors.”. “It’s an awful lot of unnecessary work” commented @fionaljp. “That’s what people with time on their hands always suggest,” said @Marisa_C, so “why not design one task and distribute questions to different students.” @koomska didn’t disagree but stated that “interestingly the title of the talk was ‘low prep differentiation!'” 

Tony Partridge

“I can agree with the point about preparation for differentiating,” stated   “The reality of teaching often makes that tricky or more time-consuming. I like the term “low prep differentiation … What about other solutions away from prep and activities… can interaction patterns, grouping, monitoring etc help?” he asked.

“Maybe giving students different roles playing to their strengths is one way,” suggested @koomska.  

@Marisa_C replied, “More or less detailed guidelines +/- extra time / write two more items for early finishers / change the items in some way / make a key etc – all these are low maintenance ideas.”  This is a slide from a free webinar she did on this topic:

Task Differentiation

“Monitoring,” replied @teacherphili.  “I set the task at same time for all learners and spend more time checking on how the slower or less able ones are doing, as I can generally trust the more able ones to finish quicker.. at which point I check on them. But mostly peer correction using one device. With monitoring, I find more questions during a task generally come from weaker students and they need more support, clarification, checking. If I’m happy they’re making progress with partner, I’ll leave them alone for a bit and do group checking at end, although it’s often staggered.”

 replied to @TonyP_ELT, “If you have a dyslexic learners in your class, give them the reading task the lesson before you do it. Then when you language mine/do comprehension questions they won’t be disadvantaged. It’s zero-prep, apart from knowing what you’re going to do next lesson.”  She later added that “one of the simplest things to do is give a minimum target. Then you can push the faster ones to do more … If you’ve got a big long reading, split it down to do as a jigsaw, and just make sure the smaller bits go to the learners with differences. Then they all still have to do the work of summarising, but with texts that push them all appropriately.”

@Marisa_C also “likes the idea of mix n’ match ‘input modes – varying the skills and materials focus e.g. video vs image vs text vs audio or jigsawing reading just to make different students ‘shine’.”

“I think knowing your learners is important, if your teaching environment permits that. Sometimes though, you have to ‘jump into’ a teaching situation or cover a class at short notice and then have to differentiate on the spot.” stated @TonyP_ELT.

I think low prep means working with what you have, but it is possible to mix up the pairs, offer varying abilities work at their level and praise the weak ones when they manage, so they don’t feel ‘NUL’ (French for ‘stupid’ as in ‘nul points’),” stated @SueAnnan.

2019-02-15 10.40.31

A mixed nationality, mixed ability class requires differentiation.

@teacherphili stated that he has “never had to differentiate as much as I do now.  Not so much with instructions, but because of their different levels and comprehension abilities.”  The specific course is English for UK Driving Theory, with lots of driving analogies used to differentiate, such as when setting homework using a traffic light system.  @Marisa_C suggested that we need a whole toolbox of attitudes and techniques and not just think about designing two extra hours of activities for the different levels and abilities.

“It’s not just about extra materials of activities,” added @teacherphili, “but almost at every stage thinking about the different abilities and speeds the learners go at.  I have very able students who comprehend everything quickly, while others go at a snail’s pace.. although the less able ones understand it takes them forever to complete tasks & are often still doing the work while the others have left and I’m packing up. @Marisa_C replied that it “looks like a very extreme placing strategy!!! I have had this problem with ESP classes where company cutting corners but if students [are] in the same department, it’s usually not so much of a problem.” @SueAnnan said that “Cutting corners is often the reason for this. I have a class of teens 14-17. You can imagine that they need careful handling to stop boredom and lack of motivation. I’ll admit that I’m planning more carefully for them.” @teacherphili stated that he is “often spending time with ‘slower’ learners at the expense of the ‘faster’ ones. I turn around and they’ve finished and are checking their phones.. so I immediately check their answers or give them an additional task

 responded that “I hate that feeling. I feel like I could give just as much help and guidance to the more abled students but I have to help the lesser abled students. Perhaps planning extra related activities is the obvious answer here.” 

Although not explicitly mentioned by name in the chat, Geoff Petty has famously written a lot about this topic and has training materials freely available online. In a recent training session at work, @teacherphili was given the following handout, which includes improving differentiation while using the weak methods (category ‘C’)

Traffic Light system for homework

Whiteboard on 15 February

Traffic Light system for homework (photo taken on 15 February)

“I like the idea of the extra challenge – challenges (reading, listening, etc) for homework can be a really good way of dealing with the issue but my gnawing question always is – will the more motivated students accelerate to a degree that creates problems for the T?” wondered @Marisa_C. Later on, she pointed out that we often forget that teachers with very low pay rates cannot afford the extra hours of that people getting a decent salary can give to preparation. Aileen @EltManchester responded to this by saying: “Personally, I love preparing innovative materials, and in previous, well-paid ELT contexts, I have spent many happy hours preparing great materials for my students. Good for me, good for my students, good for my school. Paying teachers to do a job properly just makes sense.”


In the slowburn, @jonjoTESOL added that aforementioned link to a nice website that gives a good summary of what differentiation is for anybody who might be too shy to ask. It suggests moving up on Bloom’s Taxonomy to create more challenging tasks – “I can’t wait to try, fail, try, fail, try, then partially succeed at this,” he said. He also stated that “there is a differentiation by linguistic ability in my students – my school has a lot of lower levelled students but not a lot of higher leveled students (B1 to C1). As such, they tend to be bunched together to save on resources.”

So in summary of my 15th summary for ELTchat, my own motivation to join was to share my own recent experience.  There were a lot of ideas shared but not that many links or resources on this occasion.  It is an important topic which often comes up in observation reports and has many possible ways of doing it.  But in general, participants during this chat felt that too much time could be spent on preparation to deal with this and that teachers are not paid enough to do lots of extra planning, even if some awareness of different needs, abilities, levels etc is essential when we are in the classroom.

If you regularly take part or have taken part in #ELTchat in the past, @vickysaumell is carrying out some research into its use.  Click here to complete the survey.

Tier 1: Differentiated Instruction and Scaffolding image courtesy of  UEN instructure.com. http://bit.ly/2SSaSU3

Reference: http://geoffpetty.com/training-materials/differentiation/

English UK Conference

On 18 / 19 January, I attended the English UK Academic conference, held at Prospero House, Borough, London. I gave two talks, one of which was more of a workshop.  I was fairly apprehensive in the week leading up to it and not been particularly well. I had been experiencing daily anxiety and had just turned down work with my current employer, Norfolk County Council, because of this.

Also speaking at the conference, amongst others, were Chris Farrell, who presented on ‘burnout’, Ruth Hughes talking about positive psychology and the wellbeing on international students, Julie Moore, Vic and Silvana Richardson, James Hilton, and Anne Margaret Smith. The closing plenary came courtesy of Countdown’s lexicographer, Susie Dent, who I previously bumped into in an elevator at the ELTons 2017.

first slide

On Friday, the audience was mostly ELT managers.  Like LONDOSA and Malta last year, I wanted to explicitly look at mental health in the workplace and questions drawn from my survey, the results of which I published in April last year, focusing on raising awareness and what can be done to support staff, especially the teachers.  Specific focus was on ‘factors which cause stress’, ‘signs of burnout’ and recognising mental health conditions from a list of possible symptoms. I also encouraged a discussion around the question of whether it was ever right to disclose a mental health condition to an employer up front or at interview. Often the answer to this is either no or it depends. I was pleased delegate, Jameela – see her tweet below – spoke up for challenging the stigma and encouraging a ‘normalisation’ of this by saying ‘yes’. The session was well received and a number of delegates spoke to me afterwards about it. As one delegate later commented by email:

“[the] session reinforced a feeling for me that I, as a manager, am pitifully unaware of the range of mental health issues that can affect my staff, and certainly do not possess the skills to be dealing with them in a way that benefits anyone – teacher, manager, school or student. However, it is an area that I am getting more and more insight into these days as a few of my staff have shared with me issues that they themselves have been dealing with, successfully I am pleased to say. (I’ve done little more than offer a sympathetic ear and some private time to talk).”

euk tweet 2

jameela tweet

I will be returning to this topic in Liverpool on 3 April when I will be giving a workshop aimed at employers within ELT. Liverpool Workshop

first slide 2

On Saturday, the audience was mostly teachers and the focus was more on individual wellbeing.  Again, drawing on questions from my survey, I invited participants to share their own tactics and good practices for staying well.  I purposefully started this session with this critical take on ‘wellbeing talk’ by Paul Walsh, before looking at definitions, theories of wellbeing taken from positive psychology and tips.  Again, a number of delegates shared their own experiences and chatted to me afterwards about their own particular context.  My inspiration and basis for this talk was Sarah Mercer’s recent webinar for Macmillan Education ELT and I was interviewed by them about this afterwards. Interview to follow soon. I’ll add the link when it’s live.  In the meantime, there is this promo about their Language Hub launch.  See if you can spot me.

euk tweet 1

euk tweet 3

Conference organiser Tom Weatherley said on LinkedIn:

Wowzers, what a couple of days at the Academic Conference! It was great fun, and initial feedback is excellent. Thanks to everyone involved with excellent sessions across the board, including (apologies to those missed out) Josh Round Anita Wynne Anne Margaret Smith Philip Longwell Chris Farrell Silvana Richardson Vic Richardson Gavin Dudeney Nicola Lutz Ruth Hughes James Hilton Yvert de Souza and many, many more. eukconference (photos by David Rose photography)”